Ceaselessly into the Past
By Eric Hynes

The Vanished Empire
Dir. Karen Shakhnazarov, Russia, Kino International

The Vladimir Putin era has seen its share of time capsule cinema, films that revisit the recent Soviet past to interrogate or rehabilitate Russian identity. Aleksei Uchitel’s sepia-toned melodrama Dreaming of Space (2005), a domestic hit that went undistributed in the U.S., voyages to 1961, inhaling the nationalist pride of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned mission into space without worrying over Cold War realities. Dreaming of Space celebrated loyalty, capitulation, and Russo-romanticism while begrudging the exoticism of the West, a Putin-worthy show of positivism and selective reclamation. Meanwhile, though it’s doubtful that any officials would endorse a film about a sadistic, homicidal cop, Alexey Balabanov’s bad trip back to 1983, Cargo 200 (2008) also identified the root of Russia’s latter-day malaise as the creeping advancement of Western (free) capitalism.

Even the fantasy contraptions Night Watch (2005) and Day Watch (2007), signature blockbusters of the post-Soviet era and crossover hits to boot, are framed by an original sin—a father absconding from paternal responsibility—that occurs in 1991, right at the advent of post-Soviet society (and apparently right when baggy sweaters and shaggy hair were a menace to fashion). These films writ large the struggles of a culture continually at war with itself, pitting a shambling Soviet-seeming brotherhood against new-moneyed vampires and ending with a carefully calibrated stasis, a surprisingly nuanced, if also politically convenient, take on Russian character. All of these films operate under the assumption that the national identity was compromised, but they submit different theories of when it happened, what exactly happened, and what an undefiled Russia looked like or could look like again. Was it agrarian, civilized, religious, idealist, pragmatic, poetic? Since the Soviets were most effective at bundling these elements under a unifying ideology, it’s no wonder why otherwise intense memories can be so selective on this front, and why Putin has been so successful in appropriating Soviet pomp, if not circumstance.

In plot and milieu, Karen Shakhnazarov’s new film The Vanished Empire calls to mind Dreaming of Space, as both speak to the present through wistful remembrances and pop cultural artifacts. But Shakhnazarov’s film is neither as grand as its title nor as modest as its familiar coming-of-age narrative would infer, and that’s a relief. A lesser, if more ambitious, filmmaker would have slathered this story in allegory, but Shakhnazarov is content to let it emerge from the everyday lives of his young characters. What distinguishes The Vanished Empire is its sober ambivalence about a bewildering time. Such an approach may very well capture the essence of teen life in Moscow circa 1973, or even speak to the fissured, gradual Westernization of Soviet life in general, but most importantly Shakhnazarov commits to capturing the essence of these teens in particular. They are mostly unaware of the larger context, and aren’t judged or diminished for taking their young selves seriously.

In a lovely pre-credits prologue, Shakhnazarov dramatizes in miniature the narrative that is to follow. Eighteen-year old Sergey (a strapping, Cheshire-grinning Alexander Lyapin) dances with an attractive coed while pop music plays on the apartment stereo. His friend Kostya dances with a different girl while another friend, Stepan, sits alone, methodically draining a bottle of vodka. After Kostya coaxes his partner into the bedroom, Sergey hints that Stepan should leave the party so that he too can be alone with his date. Stepan refuses, and when Sergey jokes that Stepan’s welcome to finish what was started, Stepan does just that, leaving Sergey to look on incredulously as his friend makes out with the frisky girl. Camaraderie, betrayal, sexual freedom, and possession: it’s all already on the table as the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” gives way to a moody jazz tune.

All scheme and impulse, Sergey sells off his grandfather’s books to pay for blue jeans and ignores his university studies to chase skirts. He’s selfish and smug, relying on looks and chutzpah while Stepan coolly waits on the margins to clean up the mess or comfort a neglected girl. Though Sergey genuinely falls for a beautiful classmate, Lidia (Lidia Milyuzina), he can’t seem to do right by her. He abandons her at a party to smoke pot, makes out with a dishy transfer student at the back of class, and misses a big date to fight in a brawl and drink the bruises away. With a sick mother back home and a father elsewhere living with a new wife, it’s easier to stay in motion. By the time he’s ready to be good to Lidia, it’s too late.

Because adolescence itself is such a ripe metaphor for the Soviet condition—aspiration, pose, promise, and misbehavior—the film doesn’t have to press on it too hard. Instead it closely tracks its protagonist and lets Sergey’s story exist independently of any national discussion, confident that it will vibrate outwards. The more specific it gets the more universal it plays. When we reach for metaphors to describe something so nebulous as a nation, our language is often human-sized: we talk of character, soul, spirit. And the bigger our frame of reference the more we compensate with tangible referents. Shakhnazarov is wise to stay close to his characters, and he proves to be an effective and moving dramatist. As the emotional stakes grow he and cinematographer Shandor Berkeshi devise longer, more complex shots, a visual sophistication to match the maturation of Sergey and friends.

Outside of an occasional clichéd bid for subtext—a newsreel about the American-backed Chilean coup precedes a first-date movie somehow called “Back to the Future”; talk of Vietnam and American imperialism blares from a television—Vanished Empire largely keeps things personal and particular. Perhaps these characters are representative, but that would be news to them. They’re too concerned with the life or death struggle of blue jeans, make-out sessions, and the Rolling Stones to worry over empires built or destroyed.

Shakhnazarov takes a bit of a leap with a brief coda that yanks us from warm-hued 1973 and deposits us in the crisp, cool present. A fortysomething Stepan (the terrific character actor Vladimir Ilyin) recognizes Sergey (he’s unseen and close to the camera’s eyeline, suddenly close to our own point of view) in a train station and quickly recounts what’s become of his life. In turn Sergey reveals that he’s become a Farsi translator (a turnaround from his previous academic shenanigans). Stepan is glassy-eyed with sadness and regret, but admits no nostalgia for what’s been lost. “You miss the past?” Sergey asks. “God, no,” Stepan says. “Our address is the Soviet Union. What’s this? What’s left?”